One of the most glaring examples of past egg-laying games by the Commodores has been following a well-played game against Alabama. Let's take a look at some of these in the last 30 years:
1977: The season started with a near miss upset of the decade at Oklahoma, followed by a hard-fought defensive struggle and win at Wake Forest. The Commodores fought evenly with Alabama for much of the day, until a wind-aided near 80-yard punt pinned Vandy deep in its own territory. A late ‘Bama score made the final margin look like it wasn't as close, but the Tide escaped with a 24-12 win. The following week, Vandy came out flat and watched a winless Tulane team blow them off the field 36-7.
1982: Even during the last great Vandy team's 8-win season, the Commodores had to struggle to beat another weak Tulane team following a near-miss at Alabama. The Gold Men had to come from behind to win late.
1984: Coming off an upset win in Tuscaloosa to move to 4-0 and crack the Top 20, Vanderbilt welcomed another winless Green Wave team from New Orleans. Expecting an easy win to improve to 5-0, the Commodores were embarrassed by Tulane. This loss ended the "era of good feelings at Dudley Field and started the program on its long tumble below .500 that lasts to this day.
1987: Vanderbilt narrowly missed upsetting Alabama in a Saturday night affair, as the Tide's special teams won this one late in the fourth quarter. This Vandy team was being called a sleeper team capable of winning enough games to go bowling. Once again, a mediocre Green Wave team pulled off the win in a battle of the Brown brothers. Mack's Tulane team ended up getting a bowl bid.
1989: A career day for quarterback John Gromos had Vandy on the edge of pulling off the big upset, but the bid fell short at the end. The following week, Vandy had nothing in the tank and lost to a hapless Memphis State team that proved to be the beginning of the end for Coach Watson Brown's tenure.
1993: The Commodores took the defending national champs deep into the fourth period with a chance to still win the game. The following week, expected to beat Ole Miss, the black and gold failed to show up and got drilled 49-7.
1994: Almost a repeat of the prior season, Vandy fought Alabama tooth and nail, and then watched an inferior Ole Miss team beat them by six and for all practical purposes end any chances for Gerry Dinardo's last squad to eke out a winning record.
1996: After near misses against both Notre Dame and Alabama, Vandy once again couldn't get up for Ole Miss and lost to a weak Rebel team.
You get the picture. Vandy brings it's A-game for Alabama and has nothing left in the tank the following week.
Current Commodore coach Bobby Johnson doesn't want to hear any of this. He refuses to listen about the past struggles of the Commodores following a tough Alabama game, and he has his team thinking likewise. "I don't care about the past," Johnson said. "We don't worry about anything Vanderbilt did in the past."
In the past, there was one obvious reason for the letdown following the Alabama game—there wasn't enough depth, especially on defense, and players were worn to a frazzle in the struggle against the Crimson Tide. They could not recover in seven days.
That problem may not exist this year. There is ample depth on the defensive side of the ball. Johnson and his staff have done a complimentary job recruiting and coaching the stop troops, and for once, the Commodores have a competitive two-deep.
Johnson was asked how he could teach the team to win. He chuckled as he responded, "I've been asked (that) about 10,000 times. How do you teach them to win? You really don't. You teach them how to get better as football players. You teach them technique, you get them in better shape, you get them stronger, and then as they start to play better, we get better players in here and help them out. They start to gain confidence. Right now, we feel like we can compete against anybody, and our guys think they've earned that. They've worked hard for it and that's the kind of thing we like to teach. You just don't get them in a room and say ‘hey, think about this in the fourth quarter and you're going to win.' It just doesn't work like that. You have to practice to win; you have to prepare to win. They've got to work at it real hard."
This team has continued to work hard, and to this point, injuries have been limited to bumps and bruises in the first two games. This team should not come out flat against Arkansas. They should be ready to fight tooth and nail against a team that will be seeking revenge and trying to save their coach's job.
Having former quarterback Steven Bright at the line of scrimmage helps Chris Nickson in the huddle. "There's probably more things that I see at the line of scrimmage, because I'm almost looking at it from a quarterback's standpoint when I'm on the field, maybe a lot of things that people who play the position I play wouldn't normally see during the course of a play," Bright told me. "In that sense, I can help Chris out and say, ‘hey, did you see this on this play.' Once a play begins, then I am concentrating on my assignment rather than seeing the whole field like the quarterback does."
Bright caught four passes for 52 yards against Alabama and now has six receptions for the year.
Bright was a senior in high school five years ago on September 11, 2001. "It was around lunchtime, when we were walking out of the classroom, and one of the teachers said, ‘have y'all heard what happened?' We hadn't heard yet. For the rest of the day, everybody sat down in their classroom and watched the television, watching everything develop. It was life-altering for everybody in the world. I remembered at the time not really knowing what to think. I'd never been around when something that tragic happened. As far as life changing, I'll always remember where I was when I heard that news, and it's something that you'll never forget."
When asked at that time if he thought he might be fighting in a war rather than playing football the next four years, he responded, "That was the first time I ever thought about it. I definitely thought about it that the possibility was there that I would be at war instead of playing football."
Moment of Silence Saturday
Prior to kickoff Saturday morning against Arkansas, a moment of silence will be held to honor the memory of Paul Eells, who lost his life in an automobile on July 31, 2006. Prior to spending 28 years at Arkansas, Eells was the play-by-play announcer for Vanderbilt and sports director at WSM channel four in Nashville. Known for his famous tag line "Holy smokes, what a play," channel four named its charity basketball team the Holy Smokers. Eells was a kind and patient man, even to hyperactive kids who approached him telling him they wanted to be a sports reporter when they grow up. I vividly remember listening to him announce the 1969 upset over Alabama in Nashville. At one point, he told the listening audience, many of whom brought their transistor radios to the stadium, that he would "jump out of the press box if Vandy scored the winning touchdown." At the time, the Commodores trailed 10-7 and moment later did score the winning touchdown. Prior to the next home game against Georgia, fans asked him when he was going to jump. Eells just smiled and cupped his hands together like a person getting ready to dive into a pool. Rest in peace Paul; you were loved by many.